CNN's Breaking News is a Distinction with No Distinction
Derek Cabrera, PhD
Derek Cabrera (PhD, Cornell) is an internationally known systems scientist and serves on the faculty of Cornell University where he teaches systems thinking, systems leadership, and systems mapping and is Program Director for the Graduate Certification Program in Systems Thinking, Modeling, and Leadership (STML). He is a senior scientist at Cabrera Research Lab. He’s authored 8 books including, Systems Thinking Made Simple and Flock Not Clock.
More posts by Derek Cabrera, PhD
That nearly everything at CNN is "breaking news" is not new, as it's not breaking, but it is news. Now, CNN is trying to fix its breaking news problem. CEO Chris Licht wants them to rethink the distinction and what it really means (See CNN tries to fix 'breaking news'.)
CNN is fond of telling people how it speaks truth to power, but the news media itself is a significant source of power these days. In this case, speaking "truth to power" means calling CNN out on how they use "breaking news" to capture our attention through visual alarm to catch the eyeballs of viewers. It is, in a word, a visual form of clickbait.
So, let's unpack this distinction—"breaking news"—and see what we find.
Breaking news has two components: breaking and news. News is defined as, "newly received or noteworthy information, especially about recent or important events." We sometimes think of news as simply new information; but that can't be right because that would make nearly anything "news." It might seem like that is exactly what news has become, as it is now quite commonplace to open one's social media and see what @wickedbatstyle20902 has had for breakfast. That's not really news—it is new—but it is not news. The press and news media has been called the "fourth estate" because it acts as a fourth arm of the balance of power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches. It is independent (or it is supposed to be in a functional democracy) and its primary role is to speak truth to power through the process of researching and verifying in an unbiased way. Journalists who are the the engine behind news are driven to expose power to the light of day in an unbiased way so citizens can decide both its meaning and the possible impact on their lives of current events.
The "breaking" part of Breaking News simply means to "suddenly become public." Yet, CNN has breaking news banners that last all day long and sometimes days, even though it really should be reserved for, let's say, the first hour of it important news being released. So, the breaking part is really a bit redundant with the new part of news.
So, while we are fixing the stylesheets for breaking news banners. Let's fix the meaning of breaking news as well. Its overuse has rendered it meaningless, so it is a distinction that lacks distinction. Let's get back to the days when a journalist anchor reported hard hitting news in an unbiased way—just the facts—and then trusted the public to sort out what it means and where to cast their vote as a result.
Distinction making is a big part of systems thinking. Learn more about systems thinking on Dr. Derek Cabrera's LinkedIn Learning course.